By Paul Goodman
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A leading Daily Telegraph columnist has come out in his column this morning against Boris Johnson, arguing that he can no longer support the Mayor because of his attitude to Muslims.
No. I made that up.
What has actually happened is that a leading Guardian columnist has come out against Ken Livingstone, arguing that he can no longer support him because of his attitude to Jews.
Jonathan Freedland writes that he voted for Livingstone in 2000, 2004 and 2008, but won't vote for him this time round because –
"I can no longer do what I and others did in 2008, putting to one side the statements, insults and gestures that had offended me, my fellow Jews and – one hopes – every Londoner who abhors prejudice."
Freedland was at the recent meeting in which the Labour candidate declared that "rich Jews won't vote Labour" in the forthcoming election. He says of Livingstone's autobiography that it –
"…is similarly unrepentant and notable for its repeated interest in Jews, Israel and Zionism. I'm told that Miliband's office saw an early draft which had plenty more on those subjects, including statements that had them raising their "eyebrows to the heavens"- and which they were mightily relieved to see did not make the final version."
So why do I report this news with a report of an imaginary Telegraph columnist saying that he can no longer support Boris because of his attitude to Muslims? For two reasons.
First, to make a comparison which helps to put the piece in proportion. A Tory columnist on a Tory paper coming out against Boris wouldn't be the end of the world for the latter. Journalists over-estimate their importance, and what they write usually counts for little outside the Westminster village.
But although it isn't the end of the world it is a sign of the times. I have Freedland down as an independent-minded but essentially committed Labour man – exactly the mirror image of some of those Telegraph columnists. That such a person has decided against Livingstone so close to the election tells us something worth noting.
So that's the first reason. Now for the second.
As it happens, Boris has said something which Muslims would consider offensive. He wrote during his pre-Mayoral days that "Islam is the problem" in the wake of 7/7. It is vital to make the distinction between Islam and violent Islamism, and he was careless not to do so. But his remark was a one-off: he has never repeated it.
Consider by contrast the unstoppable flow of remarks from Livingstone about Jews, Israel and Zionism – to the point where the flood seems long ago to have broken the banks of reasonableness and sense: he seems no longer capable of understanding the difference between any of three. But less important than Livingstone's words are his deeds.
Freedland cites Livingstone's contract with Iranian Government-controlled Press TV and his support for Sheikh Yusuf Al Qaradawi ("the scholar who supports female genital mutilation, the murder of homosexual people, and suicide bombing so long as the victims are Israeli civilians"). The sum of his complaint is that Livingstone is warm to one religious group but cold to another.
In doing so, he touches on a crucial difference between the two candidates. England has been largely free of sectarian religion-based politics for centuries. Livingstone's antics inflamed it during London's mayoral elections last time round. Boris, that multicultural "one-man melting pot" – as he has described himself – always seeks to soothe it.
So if you think soothing it is right and inflaming it is wrong, the best course to take in May, if you have a vote, is not to cast it for Livingstone but for Boris. Freedland won't go so far as to do the second – a pity – but he certainly now won't do the first either.